“Couldn’t find any saucers,” he said more calmly than he felt. He settled himself not too close beside her.
“There are no saucers. They were broken when I came in the wagon from New Orleans.”
“Drink it black?” He had a hard time getting the words out; being this close to her made his heart beat in an odd, ragged rhythm.
Her forehead wrinkled. “Pardon?”
“Do you want milk or sugar? Du lait? Sucre?”
Her frown lifted. “Ah, non.”
A long, awkward silence fell. He let her drink her coffee while he gazed over the purple fields and tried to gather his thoughts. She’s sure not gonna like what I’m going to tell her.
A heavenly scent invaded his nostrils—probably the lavender. He leaned imperceptibly toward her and drew in another breath. No, it was her. Soap and something spicy.
Wash gulped his coffee and tried to think of how to tell her about the railroad.
Jeanne could scarcely swallow the hot coffee the tall man had poured into her grandmother’s china cup, but it was not because it burned her tongue or tasted like scorched peppercorns. Her throat was so tight she could not even swallow her own saliva.
He’d come to talk about her farm, the only mainstay she’d found in five years of widowhood, outside of her daughter. And outside of her handed-down family knowledge about growing lavender. How precarious her life seemed at times. Whether she and Manette managed in this untamed, rough land depended solely upon her skill as a farmer. Their survival hung by a thin stalk of lavender.
Gingerly she lifted her cup from the porch and tried again to sip it, mostly just to gain some time. It was lukewarm now, but still the tightness closed her throat. Strange, but he seemed as ill at ease as she did. Three times his mouth opened to form a word, and three times his jaw snapped shut with a decisive click. Mon Dieu, what did he wish to say?
Once more his lips opened and this time she couldn’t help but notice how nicely shaped they were—not too full but… She calmed an odd flutter in her chest…sensual.
This time some of his words tumbled out. “I’m sure glad you didn’t shoot me, ma’am.”
“I meant to,” she said in a quiet voice. “I do not like strangers.”
“How long have you been farming out here, Miz Nicolet?”
She looked up sharply. “How is it you know my name?”
“I asked around in town.”
For an instant she forgot to breathe. “Why?”
He hesitated. “Well, because it seems like…” He smiled at her, his teeth white against his tanned skin. “Seems like you’ve settled on land you don’t own.”
“But I do own it, monsieur. I have the deed to prove it.”
He slurped down a mouthful of coffee. “Problem is, Miz Nicolet, you’ve been swindled.”
“Swindled? What is that?”
“To put it straight, ma’am, you’ve been cheated.”
“Ah, non. I paid all my money for this land, and Monsieur Lavery shook my hand and brought the deed to show me.”
“I’m sure he did.”
The man’s usually rich voice sounded odd. Did he not believe her? “Yes,” she reiterated, “he did.”
The man chuffed out a long breath and stared out over her lavender fields. “I don’t exactly know how to tell you this, Miz Nicolet, but—”
“Then do not.” Her hand shaking, she lowered her half-empty cup onto the porch beside her. “Please, do not say anything that will make me feel sad about what I did. Please, Monsieur…?”
“Halliday. Wash. Short for Washington, but just call me Wash.”
Jeanne followed his gaze as it skimmed over her lavender crop. “It is beautiful in the afternoon light, is it not?”
He nodded without lifting his eyes from the fields.
“This valley, it reminds me of the land near Narbonne, where I grew up. My mother grew lavender to sell at the market. And now I do, as well.”
“I can see that, ma’am. You have a fine crop here.”
“I let it grow as it will, and each summer the ground is covered in purple. I leave some of the stalks uncut until they go to seed.”
The air was sharp with the spicy fragrance. Each year her lilac-tinted sea had pushed farther and farther up the canyon sides. “It makes a small income for Manette and me. I feel safe here.” Up until now.
For an instant Wash closed his eyes. He sure understood safe. “It’s almost dusk, ma’am. I’ve got to get back to town, but before I go, could you show me your deed for the place?”